Interview: John McDermott - worth his weight in gold

John McDermott displays his 1962 Commonwealth Games medal. Picture: Donald MacLeod
John McDermott displays his 1962 Commonwealth Games medal. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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AS the British Pathe film of the event shows, John McDermott had skills in abundance to utilise when he struck gold for Scotland at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Western Australia.

But he certainly wasn’t above taking advantage of what he regarded as divine intervention in his triumphant quest to lift the featherweight boxing title in Perth.

“I worked at Rolls Royce in High Blantyre at the time and a few people asked me to take gifts and suchlike to family and friends who had emigrated to Australia,” recalls McDermott.

“One of them, a lad called Tommy Murphy from Hamilton, said ‘John, could you do me a big favour when you are there and visit my wife’s sister – she’s a nun in Perth’. It was an unusual request but I dutifully went along to the convent and even managed to persuade my team-mate Dick McTaggart to come with me.

“The nuns were all really excited to meet us and they said they would pray for us to perform well at the Games. Well, that was actually a huge confidence booster for me, because I was and still am a practising Catholic. I felt from that moment that I was going to win the gold, that it was meant to be.”

But while Perth ultimately proved to be paradise on earth for McDermott and his pals in the boxing team, who contributed almost a third of Scotland’s 14-medal haul, it initially bore more of a resemblance to Hades. A temperature of 105 degrees, 25 degrees higher than average, welcomed the athletes at the opening ceremony on 22 November at the Perry Lakes Stadium.

“I think it was one of the hottest summers they had experienced in Perth since records began,” says McDermott. “Thankfully, the boxing arena was air-conditioned.”

Which is more than could be said about the environment which McDermott found himself in when his dreams of boxing glory were first ignited a couple of years earlier, setting him on a path which has earned him an MBE for services to the sport and which still finds him working with youngsters at the Blantyre Miners’ Welfare Gym at the age of 76.

“I was in Libya, still on my national service, based in Benghazi,” he says. “The barracks were absolutely boiling, you could hardly breathe. My mum used to send me a parcel every week and one of the items was always the latest copy of Boxing News. I opened it one day and saw a piece on the selection process for the Games in Perth.

“I’d never thought about it before, but I told myself I might just have a wee chance of making it. I didn’t think that was going to be the case at the start of my time in the Army, though. I remember coming back from a holiday in the Isle of Man, walking up the hill to my home in Cambuslang, and seeing my mother standing crying at the front door. I knew that meant my call-up papers had arrived. She said: ‘You’re going to the same regiment as your Grandad – the Royal Scots’. She was emotional about that. But my first reaction was disappointment, because the Royal Scots were not known for having a boxing team. When you got called up, you wanted to get into a boxing regiment. But luckily for me, Tom McGuinness, who had boxed for Scotland at the 1958 Games in Cardiff, was called up at the same time and we formed a boxing team. We ended up as regimental champions in Germany. We were then tanked 10-2 when we came over to fight the British regimental champions, but I managed to win my bout. That gave me the platform to compete at international level and stake a claim for a place in the team for Perth.”

McDermott’s selection, however, was anything but straightforward. In circumstances remarkably similar to the recent controversy which surrounded Edinburgh welterweight Lewis Benson earning his place at Glasgow 2014 after a box-off against Connor Law of Glenrothes, Scottish boxing politics in 1962 tested McDermott’s determination and resilience to the limit.

“Ach, it was rigged,” he says. “A big guy called John Henderson was in charge of the Scottish team going to the games and he never wanted me in the team. I was training at a professional gym at the time, under Tommy Gilmour Senior, which the amateur authorities didn’t like. I don’t know if that’s what set Henderson against me, but it’s the only reason I could think of.

“Anyway, I’d beaten Evan Armstrong, who would go on to win British and Commonwealth titles as a professional, in the final of the Scottish championships and I thought that was enough to secure my place in the team.

“But as Scottish champion, I first went to the ABA finals at Wembley in London which were a really big deal at the time. Ron Lendrum of Wales was the red-hot favourite, but I beat him in the semi-final. In the final, I lost to an English lad called Billy Wilson. I felt it was close but couldn’t really argue with the decision.

“The next thing I know, though, the Scottish selectors are telling me that because Evan Armstrong had previously beaten Wilson a couple of times in other tournaments, I had to have a box-off against Evan to decide who was going to Perth. The Scottish press lads, including wee Jimmy Sanderson, were all outraged and said it would be a scandal if I wasn’t on the team.

“Anyway, they went ahead and held the box-off in the Glasgow transport depot in Possilpark. They could have televised it live on Grandstand, there was so much interest in it. But they decided the public wouldn’t be allowed in.

“There were maybe about 30 people ringside. My dad and my brother-in-law managed to get in and some of the bus drivers, either starting or finishing their shifts, were able to watch. They brought in three neutral judges and I won it out of the park. I beat Evan easier than I did in the Scottish final, yet it was still only a majority decision in my favour. When that was announced, wee Sanderson jumped up from his seat while he was phoning in his copy and shouted ‘One of the judges must be wearing a blindfold!’. Even after that, I felt Henderson never wanted me to do well in Perth, as if he wanted to be proved right that Evan should have gone instead. When we got over there, the first thing he said to me was ‘You might get the favourite, Ron Lendrum, in the draw’. I said: ‘So what, I’ve just beaten him at the ABA finals’. But he just went on about how that had been a close fight and it might be tougher in the Games. He was always negative when he spoke to me, never encouraging. It just made me more determined to succeed.”

As it turned out, the draw paired McDermott with the less-heralded Mohamed Ashraf of Pakistan, while Lendrum landed a showdown with local Australian hero Teddy Stone.

“I got the luck of the draw but maybe I’d earned it or maybe it was the nuns praying for me,” he adds with a smile. “Ashraf was a tall guy, a wee bit awkward at times, but I beat him comfortably enough. I expected to be facing Lendrum in the semi-finals, but Stone beat him. That was always going to be tough, fighting the man from the host nation, especially as some of the judges always tended to go for the home boxer if it was a close fight. So that was a bit of a concern for me. But I managed to put him on the deck a couple of times and there could be no doubting I won the fight.”

McDermott is surprised when informed British Pathe news footage from the final, against Ali Juma of Kenya, is accessible on YouTube. He has never seen the fight since it took place. The colour film, without commentary, shows his accurate left jab and punishing body shots gradually wearing down his increasingly ragged African opponent. By the final bell, Juma wears a dispirited look with his competitor’s number half-ripped from the back of his vest.

By contrast, McDermott is a picture of poise and serenity. When his hand is raised in triumph by the referee, all five judges having scored the bout in his favour, there is only an understated nod of satisfaction. There was no shortage of emotion swirling around in his mind, however.

“It was the proudest moment of my life, stepping onto the podium and receiving that gold medal for my country,” he says. “What I always remember most of all, though, was being in the dressing room before the fight, warming up and putting my gloves on. All of a sudden, I heard ‘Scotland The Brave’ being struck up in the hall. It was for Bobby Mallon, who had won the flyweight final earlier in the day. It gave me such a lift hearing that, I felt like the Incredible Hulk, my chest was bursting so much. I knew then that I had to win.”

Along with golds from McDermott and Mallon, there was a silver medal for former Olympic champion Dick McTaggart in the lightweight division and bronze for Tom Menzies at light-heavyweight. Of the five-man boxing team, only middleweight John Fisher came home empty-handed.

“We all got on great together and we shared the success among us,” says McDermott. “We had done Scotland proud and it was a great feeling. We certainly enjoyed the celebrations after the final night of boxing. I can still tell you that Swan Lager is named after the river which runs through Perth. You could have gone some way to filling it with the beer that was drunk that night!”.

If it was the highlight of McDermott’s career, it was barely the start of his remarkable life of dedication to boxing. As a trainer, he went on to scale fresh heights in the sport. Thirty years on from his own triumph in Perth, he was the guiding hand behind one of Scottish boxing’s most memorable nights when Pat Clinton dethroned Isidro Perez of Mexico at a raucous Kelvin Hall to become WBO world flyweight champion in March 1992.

“That was just a phenomenal occasion,” he says. “I’d known Pat since he was a wee boy but he had been based down in London for a lot of his professional career. When he decided he was coming back to Scotland, he called me and said he wanted me to train him and help him become world champion. He was brilliant that night against Perez, who was a tremendous champion. From a personal level, getting the gold in Perth was obviously the high point for me but I can honestly say I took just as much pleasure from playing a part in Pat’s success.”

McDermott has called time on his involvement in the professional game, but plans to continue offering his insight and encouragement to the youngsters at his Blantyre gym, where he has been based for the past 44 years, as long as his health allows. Happily, it remains robust and has allowed him what he admits has been a deeply affecting involvement in the build-up to the Games in Glasgow.

“I was asked to be one of the bearers when the Queen’s Baton Relay came through South Lanarkshire last month,” he adds. “I have to tell you that’s the most emotional I’ve ever been about anything. A lot of people from Blantyre turned out to see me and all my nieces, nephews and their kids were there. It was a really special feeling, very difficult to put into words.

“I’m really thrilled the Games are coming to Glasgow. When the decision to award them to Glasgow was first announced, I was watching it on TV and there were tears running down my cheeks. It’s going to be fabulous for the city and the whole country. I attended the Games when they were held in Edinburgh in 1970 and 1986 and the atmosphere was great. But I think Glasgow will surpass that.

“The organisers have asked Dick McTaggart and myself to attend the finals night of the boxing at the SECC on 2 August. They are going to get us into the ring and introduce us to the crowd, which is a lovely gesture. It’s especially nice to see Dick getting some recognition. It always amazes me, not to mention annoys me a wee bit, how often he is overlooked when people talk about Scotland’s greatest ever sportsmen.

“I’m a great admirer of people like Chris Hoy, who was a fantastic athlete, but people should be reminded of what Dick McTaggart achieved, winning Commonwealth, European and Olympic golds. He really was a superstar of his time.”

So does McDermott expect to see any of Scotland’s 10-strong boxing team at Glasgow 2014 joining McTaggart and himself on the list of the country’s gold-medal winners?

“It’s going to be really hard,” he says. “I was at the Scottish finals in March and there were a couple of good young lads. The bantamweight Joe Ham was probably the one who impressed me most. And maybe it’s a good omen for Lewis Benson that he had to have a box-off to secure his place, just like I did all those years ago! If they get the luck of the draw, then hopefully there will be a few Scottish medals to celebrate.”

For all his positivity about the Glasgow games, McDermott does have one major beef with those in charge of Team Scotland.

“What about those outfits they are wearing for the opening ceremony?,” he says. “They are terrible. I’m glad we didn’t have to wear anything like that in 1962. They took us to a tailors on Lothian Road in Edinburgh and kitted us out in beautiful blue blazers and white trousers. We all had Panama hats as well. I actually gave my hat away at the end of the Games to an ex-pat called Con Duffy who came from Newton, near my home in Cambuslang, and turned up to support us in Perth. I should maybe have given it to the nuns instead!”.